Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer - Directors of Check It

Spot on Directors:
Dana Flor & Toby Oppenheimer

For the month of August, we are thrilled to spotlight a director duo who champion untold stories (like that of the Check It crew) that demand to be told and, in this case, to be seen, bringing all the head-turning looks of DIY high fashion that can be brought! Read our interview with Dana and Toby to find out what motivates this filmmaking duo, how they met the formidable Check It crew, and how this gang’s story can start conversations about marginalized LGBT youth in our communities.

What is it that brought the two of you together to make this documentary film?

We first teamed up for HBO to co-direct and produce a feature-length documentary—The Nine Lives of Marion Barry (2009)—about the infamous former D.C. mayor and politician.  As so often happens, one film leads to another. We met Ron Moten, the Check It’s mentor, while making the Barry film. He mentioned that he was working with the Check It and that these were some of the most extraordinary kids that he had ever met. Once we met the crew, there was no turning back.

What is your history with documentary film? Is there a red thread that has followed you in some way throughout your career?

Between us, we’ve separately worked on a wide range of stories and topics for PBS, CNN, BBC, A&E, National Geographic, The History Channel, and The Sundance Channel to name a few. A red thread that you might say follows our work is the desire to tell stories that no one else is telling and what keeps us going is an intense fascination with our characters’ lives and the passionate conviction that their story needs widespread illumination.

Members of The Check It crew have grown up in very difficult circumstances and faced incredible hardships including discrimination, homophobia, violence, homelessness, poverty, and a general lack of support in the most basic sense. Yet they have persevered, coming together to protect one another and also put their creativity to work. What are members of The Check It up to now? For example, have any of the crew members continued to pursue fashion?

We’re thrilled to report that the Check It recently opened their own clothing store. Many of the Check It are now working on developing the fashion line and helping create a community center at their store location. The Check It kids have also been trained as outreach workers and are now counseling kids like themselves who are on the streets. There are many members of the Check It and everyone, of course, has their own story, but overall, there has been a real transformation in the group.

The Check It is a very close knit group and perhaps not very open to outsiders, which would be understandable given their experiences. How did you gain their trust during the filming process? Was it difficult to get them to open up or let you into their lives?

It’s a challenge to gain the trust of kids who have been let down by many people and the institutions that they have encountered in their lives. It took patience but most importantly time. We had to show that we were there for them for the long haul.

The film takes place in close proximity to the nation’s capital and seat of power, while telling a story of perhaps the most marginalized of the marginalized in the U.S.—LGBT African-Americans. How do you hope the telling of this story contributes to changes in the community, the nation at large or its policies? Have you seen any changes so far?

The first step in making change is identifying what needs to be changed. We believe that making this film is helping do that.  Locally here in D.C., we’ve seen a radically different attitude that the community has towards the Check It, as well as how the Check It now see themselves. We hope that the film can be used as a platform for discussion around the world, because sadly, there are marginalized LGBT kids everywhere.

After seeing a documentary, many people are eager to take action or apply what they’ve learned to their own life. Is there something specific you would like viewers (including any international audiences) to do or a conversation you would like them to have after watching CHECK IT?

There are marginalized LGBT youths living on the street in dire conditions worldwide because they’ve been rejected by their families, schools, churches, and communities. What can be done to help? How do these kids end up in these situations?  What can be done to prevent this from happening? This is a conversation that many communities need to have. People can help the Check It themselves by supporting their fashion line and buying their products at www.checkitenterprises.com.  For people who are in D.C. or for travelers visiting the nation’s capital, please go visit the Check It at their store at 1920 Martin Luther King Blvd SE, D.C. Become a mentor! Donate sewing machines or material! Get involved!

What would your documentary playlist consist of?

So many great films out there! Here are some favorites, in no particular order, and centering on no particular theme:

Tempestad, The Act of Killing, Winnebago Man, City of Ghosts, Exit Through the Gift Shop, and Bombay Beach

 


CHECK IT is Influence Film Club’s featured film for August 2017. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media, we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general—because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by: Nicole Smith

Documentary Playlist: In Their Own Hands

Documentary Playlist: In Their Own Hands

“How true Daddy’s words were when he said: all children must look after their own upbringing. Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”

– Anne Frank

Creativity. Fairness. Humility. Forgiveness. Honesty. Spirituality. Optimism. These are but a few of a long, long list of traits that make up that slippery thing we refer to as a person’s character. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definitions are a bit more refined: “One of the attributes or features that make up and distinguish an individual”; or a “main or essential nature especially as strongly marked and serving to distinguish.” It’s really a matter of definition itself.

These are the virtues or imperfections that make up and differentiate each and every individual the world over, and it just so happens that documentary film is an extraordinary form for highlighting the characteristics that make people extraordinary. In celebration of Character Day, these six films explore the vast spectrum of human character traits.

In the incredible NOTES ON BLINDNESS, professor John Hull is depicted as an exemplar of perspective, a love of learning, and perseverance as we witness his journey into darkness as he loses his sense of sight midway through his career at the University of Birmingham. Using his personal audio journals and interviews with his wife, the film allows us to experience how his view of everyday life drastically changed, yet thanks to his love of research and education, he found new ways to navigate the woolly world of academics. Blindness be damned.

Death row inmate Nick Yarris, the magnetic subject of the winding crime yarn THE FEAR OF 13, is the living definition of adaptability, forgiveness, and humility. Structured as a juicy soliloquy recounted by Yarris himself, his youthful life of crime and knack for telling white lies led him to be nailed for a murder he didn’t commit. Yet, his dire situation did not break him. Behind bars he found clemency, and in books he found the knowledge that allowed him to change.

Another individual put behind bars, Chinese activist Ye Haiyan, the namesake and soul at the center of HOOLIGAN SPARROW, was unjustly imprisoned for her dissent of sexual abuse and the inaction against it by the Chinese government. Her selfless bravery and raw honesty made her an international icon of resistance at the cost of her own freedom.

13TH deals with the dark side of the U.S. prison system, as it examines the history of racial inequality through today’s policy of forcing imprisoned persons to perform unpaid work. Speaking with intellectual acumen and a deep sense of empathy for their fellow men and women, human rights activists Angela Davis, Bryan Stevenson, Van Jones, and the many others interviewed throughout this monumental film are models of social responsibility, intelligence, fairness, and leadership. Without powerful voices for change like these, the world would be a far graver place.

As an inventive work of personal memoir, CAMERAPERSON reveals filmmaker Kirsten Johnson’s precarious perspective behind the lens as she attempts to capture the heartrending and harrowing events taking place before her eyes. It’s both an immersive depiction of humanity in all its messiness and a powerful portrait that regards its director as an empathetic, trusting, and ultimately, wildly creative individual hungry for adventure.

Similarly, SKY LADDER sees the internationally renowned artist Cai Guo-Qiang traveling the world, creating works of explosive ingenuity—literally—in experimental gunpowder paintings and large-scale fireworks displays. Through his work he attempts transcendence, revealing an exceptional man driven by ambition and an appreciation of beauty.

In celebration of Character Day, commemorate the occasion with this series of films that exude character through and through, investigating the essence of what makes us each human in our own unique ways.

Wisdom – Notes On Blindness
Following the award-winning short film of the same name, the feature version of NOTES ON BLINDNESS documents John Hull’s extraordinary journey into “a world beyond sight,” utilizing his own audio material and a creatively inspired take on the documentary medium in order to understand his transition to blindness.

Courage Hooligan Sparrow
State surveillance. Harassment. Imprisonment. HOOLIGAN SPARROW follows the Chinese activist Ye Haiyan, AKA Sparrow, as she seeks justice for six school girls who were sexually abused by their principal and continues fighting for the rights of sex workers.

Humanity Cameraperson
As a visually radical memoir, CAMERAPERSON draws on the remarkable footage that filmmaker Kirsten Johnson has shot for other filmmakers and reframes it in ways that illuminate moments and situations that have personally affected her.

Justice – 13th
America makes up 5% of the world’s population, yet locks up 25% of the world’s prisoners. 40% are black men. 13TH gives an in-depth look at the prison system in the United States and how it reveals the nation’s history of racial inequality.

Temperance – The Fear of 13
THE FEAR OF 13 is a psychological thriller, where Nick, a death row inmate, petitions the court to be executed. As he goes on to tell his story, it gradually becomes clear that nothing is quite what it seems. His story has all the twists and turns of classic crime drama with a final shocking twist casts everything in a new light.

Transcendence – Sky Ladder
The Sky Ladder is a 1,650-foot ladder of fire climbing into the skies above artist Cai Guo-Qiang’s hometown. Told through the artist’s own words and those of family, friends, and observers, the film tracks Cai’s meteoric rise and examines why he engineers artworks that loom as far as the eye can see.

 

Sarah Taklser Spotlight

Spot on Directors: Sara Taksler

Who doesn’t love a good laugh? We certainly do, especially when it’s in support of a good cause—like speaking up against those who abuse their positions of power. Sara Taksler’s documentary TICKLING GIANTS dares us to do just that, to use our words and voices against those power abusers in the way that Egyptian surgeon-turned-comedian Bassem Youssef did. We caught up with Sara to ask her more about her film and the power of sarcasm. And she did not disappoint!

What is it that draws you to documentary film?

I’ve always been intrigued by true stories. I like the idea of finding stories and characters that would make a good movie even if they were made up, and having the added excitement of telling a true story.

What is your history with documentary film? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

I seem to be drawn to stories that mix comedy with social justice. My first feature film, with my co-director and friend, Naomi Greenfield, was called TWISTED: A Balloonamentary. That movie focused on eight people who went to balloon twisting conventions. One woman used balloon money to get off welfare and go to college, one man found religion through balloons. I love finding unique stories and looking for fun ways to tell them.

While TICKLING GIANTS is specifically set in Egypt following the Arab Spring, what ways do you hope broader audiences will relate to the story? How have audiences reacted to the film and have you been surprised in any way by the film’s reception?

To me, the movie happens to take place in Egypt, but it is really about finding non-violent creative ways to express yourself when you see an abuse of power. Bassem and his team could have tried beating people up and killing to have their voices heard, as many others did. But instead, they told jokes. And I believe their opinions were so much louder and more articulate because of this choice. We all see abuses of power every day.

And that seems to be only becoming more common. There are no geographic boundaries on that. In fact, to my surprise, here in America, I’ve been pleased by how broad the audience has been. Liberals, conservatives, libertarians… After our first screening, someone working with Ted Cruz reached out to express support. Lots of people, all over the political aisle are worried about free speech. And many people are worried about the abuses of power they see.

“Are you brave enough to tell a joke?” is the question that serves as the film’s tagline. You’ve spoken about the importance of laughing when things go wrong or are difficult, perhaps as a way to process and deal with these times. Has humor and laughter helped you be brave in some way in your own life or career?

I’ve probably made a smart-ass comment every single time I’ve been uncomfortable or nervous. It’s how I process things. I think if you went through every atrocity in human history, there was a joker in the back whispering something entirely inappropriate, making others laugh. When I’m scared, I feel freaked out, look around to access the situation, and then say something sarcastic.

After seeing a documentary, many people are eager to take action or apply what they’ve learned to their own life. Is there something specific you would like viewers to do or a conversation you would like them to have after watching TICKLING GIANTS?

I would love for people to find their own creative, non-violent ways to express themselves when they see abuses of power. It would be great if people shared them, to inspire others, with the hashtag #TicklingGiants. Also, as it just happened to work out, this film is coming out in America at a time when there is a lot of talk about a “Muslim Ban.” The people in this film (and some of the people who made this film) are examples of the kinds of smart, funny, ordinary people who needed to leave their country because it wasn’t safe for them to be themselves there. I would love if people think about Bassem as an example of the kind of person we’re discussing when we talk about a “Muslim Ban.”

What would your documentary playlist consist of?

Disturbing the Peace (I just saw this at a festival—great dialogue starter about the Middle East)

The Uncondemned (Just sat next to the subject of this film on a plane to a festival! Talk to your neighbors, folks.)

Spellbound (a funny, sweet, beautiful film)

The Act of Killing (such a wonderfully done story)

The War Room (One of the first documentaries I ever watched. It got me interested in filmmaking)

TWISTED: A Balloonamentary (Sure, it’s one of mine, but you haven’t seen it, right?)

 


TICKLING GIANTS is Influence Film Club’s featured film for June 2017. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media, we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general—because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by: Nicole Smith

Sarah Moshman Spotlight Interview

Spot On Directors: Sarah Moshman

Sarah Moshman is a filmmaker whose positive and empowering outlook, approach, and projects we value greatly and are excited to share. She brings us inspiring true stories of amazing females who challenge and stretch the limits of possibility, while encouraging us to reach past our own comfort zone and find what lies beyond. But she doesn’t just show us these things on screen, she also puts the same ideas into practice in her own life. Obviously, we were eager to talk more with her about her latest documentary LOSING SIGHT OF SHORE and life in general.

What is it that draws you to documentary film?

True stories are so powerful, they make us feel less alone and help us process our own emotions and experiences. I love the whole process of making a film—from the lightbulb moment of an idea, to crafting the story in production and post, as well as building and finding an audience who will be first in line to see it when it’s done. I love how many hats I get to wear as an artist and a businesswoman, and I think of myself as an entrepreneur as well as a filmmaker. I like thinking about the whole vision from idea to completion, each phase is dependent on the other phases, and when it all comes together for an audience to enjoy, for me it is the ultimate feeling of empowerment.

What is your history with documentary film? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

I made my first documentary when I was 16 years old for a high school English class, and when I showed it to the class and saw their reactions, I was instantly hooked. I felt a strength and courage with a camera next to me I hadn’t felt before. Being a filmmaker has always been my dream, and I feel so lucky and grateful to work in this field.

I am so passionate about making documentaries that spotlight strong, complex, real girls and women so we can shift the way media represents and portrays what it means to be female in our world. This has been an ongoing theme with my work, and I know it will be a continuing theme as I continue to make films. It is so important for women to see themselves reflected back to them in film and television, and it is my mission and passion to help make that happen.

You have worked in television but also independently on your own documentary projects. In your experience, what are some of the biggest differences working on these two sides of the business?

The biggest difference is creative control. Often times working in television you are a small part of a large team, and it’s hard to take ownership of the content you are producing. And when the show ends, you move on and have no role in it anymore. What I love about making documentaries is the freedom to be creative, to push myself, and leave my comfort zone. I am constantly learning new skills out of necessity, and making mistakes that I am forced to face and learn from. It can be a lonely and isolating experience at times.

Some days I certainly fantasize about getting a steady job again, and I’m sure I will again at some point. But for now, I am very self-disciplined, and I love how my films stay in my life. I finished my first feature documentary The Empowerment Project over three years ago and it is still very much a part of my life—showing it in schools, groups, organizations, film festivals. When it’s your own project it can be the gift that keeps on giving if you have the right strategy in place. I hope that Losing Sight of Shore will live on in many forms for years to come.

The question “what would you do if you weren’t afraid to fail?” has played a motivational role for you in the last several years. Do you have any advice or tips on following this question through to its answer in one’s own life, and even turning fear and possible failure into something positive?

Yes, that is the tagline of my first feature The Empowerment Project and has been a very motivating sentiment in my life. Failure is integral to success and growth, although we may all define failure and success differently. I recognized early on in my career that for me, failure means not trying, not pushing myself. And once you have an experience where you are so far outside your comfort zone and it goes well, you can use that experience to get you through future moments that may seem insurmountable. We are all way more resilient than we give ourselves credit for. I have learned so much more from being let down and rejected, and it honestly makes the moment of joy and glory that much more meaningful.

Losing Sight of Shore has been one heck of a journey getting it made, it was the biggest risk of my professional life. I had no idea if these four women would make it even one third across the Pacific Ocean, but I knew I would always regret it if I didn’t try to tell their story. That’s why this quote is so motivating and important to me.

Thinking about your commitment to featuring strong, complex women and girls on screen and the importance of their visibility in today’s media landscape naturally brings to mind the impact of female role models. How important is it to see people that look like ourselves who are also breaking and pushing the boundaries of what is possible?

There are thousands of messages that we are getting as consumers every second of every day as we interact with technology. A lot of those messages when it comes to referring to or representing women tend to be objectifying, sexualized, or simply incorrect and misleading. These messages have a huge impact on how we perceive the world, and in turn, how we perceive girls and women. I am dedicated to working towards changing that through film and shining a light on stories of complex, flawed, strong, female leaders and innovators that are paving the way for the next generation.

It is a proven fact that when girls see more characters and images that look more like them in the media, they can see more of their limitless potential. I have seen firsthand the impact positive media can have on a young girl and an adult woman, as well as for boys and men redefining unconscious biases they may hold. That’s part of the reason why I was so drawn to the story of the Coxless Crew. These are four people, who happen to be women, doing something so far outside anyone’s comfort zone and redefining what we may view as an athlete, as a rower, as an adventurer or explorer.

It seems clear that you were the perfect filmmaker to team up with the Coxless Crew to make LOSING SIGHT OF SHORE and tell their story of rowing across the Pacific in their boat Doris. How did you meet the rowers and learn about the monumental task they set out to achieve?

I met the Coxless Crew through a blogger in the UK named Fiona Tatton who runs a site called Womanthology. She emailed me a few months before they set off on the row asking if I’d like to be introduced to them. What began as pleasantries for our first Skype call, ended with me certain this was a story I had to help tell. This was about so much more than rowing. This was about the power of the human spirit. Natalia Cohen, one of the rowers said it best: “I believe everyone has a Pacific to cross,” and that’s when I knew this was too extraordinary to pass up. It has been an adventure of a lifetime ever since.

After seeing a documentary, many people are eager to take action or apply what they’ve learned to their own life. Is there something specific you would like viewers to do or a conversation you would like them to have after watching LOSING SIGHT OF SHORE?

We want to hear about YOUR Pacific. We all need to lose sight of the shore once in a while to grow and learn, but it can be scary. We encourage people to share with us what ‘Pacifics’ they are about to cross or have crossed in their lives—like writing a book, or overcoming an injury or illness, it can mean anything. Share with us on social media by using #MYPACIFIC so we can support one another as we lose sight of shore.

What would your documentary playlist consist of?

Oh I love this!

The Empowerment Project, Miss Representation, Meru, Lovetrue, He Named Me Malala, and Gleason

 


LOSING SIGHT OF SHORE is Influence Film Club’s featured film for May 2017. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media, we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general—because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by: Nicole Smith

See The Hope Inside Playlist

Documentary Playlist: See The Hope Inside

“A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself. A mentor is someone who allows you to know that no matter how dark the night, in the morning joy will come. A mentor is someone who allows you to see the higher part of yourself when sometimes it becomes hidden to your own view.”
Oprah Winfrey

Those who move through life without the guidance, support, and inspiration of mentors and muses are few and far between. Everyone has at some point looked up to someone in the public eye and gleaned a greater sense of one’s self, while most have, in critical moments, been taken under another’s wing and given a bit of direction in life – whether that person be a teacher, coach, neighbor, community leader, or maybe even that record store clerk who gave you a musical recommendation that changed your perception of the world forever. You never know who or when someone might leave their mark. These are the folks that not only help mold one’s sense of being, but light that torch from within that guides us forward, inspiring and challenging us to be better, stronger, and wiser than we thought possible.

And who better to set such an example than Oprah? An immensely influential figure of feminine power, success, grace, and generosity, she’s inspired countless people around the globe and even has a brief appearance in Tiffany Shlain’s celebratory 50/50: RETHINKING THE PAST, PRESENT & FUTURE OF WOMEN + POWER, a short that recontextualizes the historical role of women in positions of political power and highlights how mentorships can bear immense societal returns on their emotional investments. The dynamic, fearless women featured in Shlain’s film serve as female figures of motivational inspiration, challenging society’s gender norms while the women it features look to one another for counseling and guidance.

Thanks to the media, body image activist Taryn Brumfitt has also been setting a positive example for women the world over, as can be witnessed in her uplifting travel doc EMBRACE. In her travels she visits dignified women of all backgrounds and body types, each of whom set a new example of how women’s bodies can be beautiful in their uniqueness along the way. Likewise, in VESSEL, doctor and Greenpeace worker Rebecca Gomperts casts off in a rugged little ship with her newly formed organization Women On Waves, which provides abortion services in countries where it is illegal. The result? She’s inspired women to take action for themselves and to form grassroots activist groups around the globe.

Mentorship bubbles up from the heart of THE REVOLUTIONARY OPTIMISTS, in which a former lawyer named Amlan Ganguly works with children from the slums of Kolkata in hopes of bringing education, recreation, and hope to a portion of Indian society that has long been left to the gutter. With encouragement from Ganguly, the children find self-confidence and the ambition to engage with their community to constitute real change.

Up north, gender norms are challenged as Iranian physics teacher Asghar Kabiri serves as mentor and fellow star gazer to Sepideh Hooshyar, a teenage girl who dreams of becoming an astronaut in the heartrending SEPIDEH: REACHING FOR THE STARS, while the Mongolian set THE EAGLE HUNTRESS sees 13-year-old Aisholpan, with help from her father and mentor Nurgaiv, train to become the first female in 12 generations of her Kazakh family to become an eagle hunter. Without the generous guidance and encouragement from those older and wiser, where would they be today?

These six wonderful films celebrate mentors and muses for all their affirmative influence on us, inspiring us to better ourselves, seek out new experiences, and engage with our communities in new, overwhelmingly positive ways.

50/50: Rethinking the Past, Present, and Future of Women in Power
What will it take to get to a 50/50 world—not just in politics and boardrooms, but to truly shift the gender balance to be better for everyone? Through a cinematic-thought-essay style, the film explores where we really are on the greater arc of history of women and power.

Embrace
When Body Image Activist Taryn Brumfitt posted an unconventional before-and-after photo in 2013 it was seen by more than 100 million people worldwide and sparked an international media frenzy. EMBRACE follows Taryn’s crusade as she explores the global issue of body loathing, inspiring us to change the way we feel about ourselves and think about our bodies.

Vessel
VESSEL depicts medical doctor and Greenpeace worker Rebecca Gomperts who, horrified by the realities created by anti-abortion laws around the world, provides abortions on a ship in offshore waters. Her project – Women on Waves –  becomes a media frenzy, faced with governmental, religious, and military blockades.

The Revolutionary Optimists
THE REVOLUTIONARY OPTIMISTS follows former lawyer Amlan Ganguly who empowers children from the slums of Kolkata to become agents of change – battling poverty and transforming their neighborhoods with dramatic results.

Sepideh: Reaching for the Stars
Can a young Iranian woman become an astronaut? SEPIDEH: REACHING FOR THE STARS is the story of a remarkable teenage girl named Sepideh who defies societal expectations and courageously works to make her dream come true.

The Eagle Huntress
Set against the breathtaking expanse of the Mongolian steppe, THE EAGLE HUNTRESS follows 13-year-old Aisholpan, the first female in 12 generations of her Kazakh family training to become an eagle hunter.

Interview with Lotje Sodderland

Humans of Documentary: Lotje Sodderland

Turning the camera on one’s self to document life can be an unnerving experience in itself, but imagine doing this following a life-threatening situation, like a brain hemorrhage, while also undergoing recovery. Clearly, not just anyone could carry out such a project. It takes a special person like Lotje Sodderland. She has inspired us with her courage, creativity, and remarkable positivity in the documentary MY BEAUTIFUL BROKEN BRAIN which chronicles the personal aftermath of her brain hemorrhage. Naturally, we wanted to track down the amazing Lotje and talk with her about the experience of making the documentary.

Were you drawn to documentary film before the experience chronicled in MY BEAUTIFUL BROKEN BRAIN?

Yes, I used to be a documentary producer. I worked in Amsterdam, Cambodia, Paris, and London and loved working on stories about reality.

Will you continue to work with documentary film?

Although I can’t do the same things I did before the stroke, my work in the documentary field is actually more exciting and inspiring now than it was before. I am able to shoot and direct my own films, rather than work on the production side. I’ve just completed a documentary about the future of neuroscience for the UK Broadcaster Channel 4 and am soon heading to India to shoot a film about women enslaved in the sex industry.

Though the film documents your recovery, you and your co-director Sophie Robinson have said this is more than just a recovery a film. How else would you characterize this film?

The film is about personal transformation, the nature of reality, and the fragility of every human life, as well as, being a personal voyage into the human brain and mind.

In the film, you use experimental effects to convey the way you were experiencing the world after the brain hemorrhage which you said felt like living in a David Lynch film. Lynch actually did get involved in the film as executive producer. How did his involvement impact the film and your personal journey?

Mr Lynch presented the voice of wisdom in all the insanity following my stroke. I was having a dialogue with him in my imagination, because I thought he would completely understand this surreal world of warped language and perception. Then the communication went from being in my head to actually becoming a reality, and it really helped the healing process to have him support me and the film. He’s a very kind and generous creature.

You obviously underwent a time of massive upheaval in your life as a result of the brain hemorrhage, yet you kept a very positive overall outlook by focusing on what you can do as opposed to what you lost. How did you maintain this forward momentum and ability to accept and adapt?

I think I’ve been blessed with an optimistic way of seeing the world, and this was very helpful. I’m also a curious person and my interest in the situation gave me something to help try to understand it. The fact I was able to make a film while recovering was such a huge part of the recovery process, and I will be forever grateful to everyone who got involved in making it happen, especially Sophie Robinson who was so generous and fun throughout the long and sometimes challenging production. The best part is that now, many people are able to use the film as a way to explain and understand their own traumas.

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film?

I am not really sure to be honest as I can’t read and don’t really know how people are responding. I do know that many people have been in touch to offer thanks for the film for all number of reasons—from young stroke survivors to those suffering from depression or heartbreak, it seems to be providing a tool for positivity which is just the best gift ever.  

Often after watching documentaries, people feel inspired to apply the lessons learned to their own life. Is there something particular that you would like people to walk away with after seeing the film?

I hope the film reminds us that as human beings we are not indestructible, and that love and simplicity are the most important ingredients to a happy life.

What would your documentary playlist consist of?

Into Great Silence; Forest of Bliss; Gambling, Gods and LSD; Bells From The Deep; and anything by Vincent Moon


MY BEAUTIFUL BROKEN BRAIN is Influence Film Club’s featured film for April 2017. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by: Nicole Smith

Tiffany Shlain

Spot on Directors: Tiffany Shlain

In celebration of 50/50 Day on May 10th, we are talking with Emmy-nominated filmmaker and founder of The Webby Awards Tiffany Shlain. Along with her impressive team at the non-profit organization Let It Ripple in San Francisco, Shlain will bring thousands of people together from around the world in a global conversation about gender equality on May 10th. As believers in engaging dialogue and discussions around documentary film, we were excited to learn more about the inspiration behind Shlain’s work and projects. Read a transcription of our conversation with Tiffany below. And of course, if you’re interested in participating in 50/50 Day on May 10th and the global conversation on gender equality, sign up to host a screening here.

What draws you to documentary film?

I’ve always loved the word “movie.” I believe movies can move you, emotionally and intellectually, and they can evolve you. In terms of documentaries, with my documentaries, they are more like cinematic essays because I own my perspective. They are very much first person perspective.

I like that documentaries give you a sense of what we’re wrestling with in society.

I think documentaries, just the framing of watching a documentary, immediately sets the context that you are going to be challenged. I like that people want to see documentaries. It gives me faith in humanity that they know they are going to be challenged on something and might change or evolve their point of view.

I go on date night every Saturday with my husband. Most times we see narratives and sometimes we see documentaries. When we see narratives, it’s about escaping reality on some level, but not always. But with a documentary, I think we’re embracing something important that we need to understand more deeply.

What is your history with documentary film? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

My first big project I tried to do which I failed at was a feature documentary right after college which was actually a narrative. In college, I made a documentary looking for women filmmaking role models called “Reel Inspiration.” I made that and then I tried to make this narrative feature. It’s been a journey. I’ve been making films for 27 years.

But the majority of my films, 99% of them, have been documentaries, and the last 10 years have been from my voice – my perspective – with me narrating which was a big breakthrough for me. I used to have Peter Coyote narrate my movies or this wonderful British women. But then there was this moment when I asked myself: “why am I having someone else speaking my thoughts?”

Just last month, I had the first desire to do a narrative film again (the first time in 20 years). Creatively I like to challenge myself, so I maybe I’m going to make this narrative film. But I’m mostly drawn to documentaries. I feel like it’s so close to who I am. They say “do what you know,” so most of the subjects and issues in my films are ones I’m wrestling with and trying to figure out. I feel like the films pull me into understanding, and hopefully they pull the audience along with me, so we’re on a journey together.

Dialogue and collaboration are important aspects of your projects like 50/50 Day. Does prioritizing these values impact the way you work? For example, what is “Cloud Filmmaking” and how did you and your team develop and implement this method of making films?

Because of my background founding The Webby Awards and running that for a decade, and my long-standing interest in technology as a way to move ideas around and move culture, I’m always trying to combine technology and film for social change. After I sold The Webby Award 11 years ago and started my film studio, that was my goal: to combine film with the power of the web to make social change. That’s always an integral part.

With Cloud Filmmaking, the question was “how can we make collaborative films” with all the technology available today? With the global film discussion days, it is about how we can distribute films in a new way and start a global conversation where everyone around the world is watching one film and having one discussion from different perspectives. That is very exciting to me.

After “50/50” was released, we originally were going to make a series, but then the U.S. election happened. And I thought, I could keep my head down for a year making a series, but I felt that what it was calling me to do was a global conversation around gender equality. It [the election] really changed what we were going to do this year.

I wanted to use “50/50” to spark a global conversation about gender equality in places that wouldn’t normally have this conversation…where the change needs to happen: in schools, companies, and organizations. What is exciting about this global day is, for example, we just got the entire San Francisco unified school district to sign up. There will be students who might never see a film about gender equality seeing it. Then we have all the tech companies showing it in all their offices. We wanted to go to places where people already gather, where the change needs to happen, and bring this conversation there.

Your 50/50 film touches on the importance of mentors and the powerful impact they can have on one’s development and growth. Did you ever have a mentor? Was there an important person in your life who had a lasting influence on the choices you made or path you took?

I have to say my parents because we are really close. The film “Connected” is a lot about my father, who has passed, and his influence on me. And then in “50/50,” you can see my mom’s influence.

I had an amazing professor at UC Berkeley, Marilyn Fabe, who I thank in all my film credits because she inspired me to be a filmmaker. She taught me about the history of film and film theory, and how the change in technology and how we make films has changed culture.

Also, Geralyn Dreyfus, one of the executive producers on my feature documentary “Connected.” She has really mentored and supported me throughout my career. I have so many mentors, men and women. I am a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute and they have a mentor for you – which is such a gift. Anna Deavere Smith has been my mentor from that program. When I was running The Webby Awards, Kelly Conlin was the CEO of IDG. He really believed in me. And also my film production professor at NYU Arnie Baskin.

Then for 50/50 Day, Jacki Zehner has been supporting me through this process. If somebody has helped me, I never forget it, and I’m constantly letting them know that. I also mentor people…which I love doing. Making “50/50” made me think about mentorship in a whole new way…mentors can be from history, people you admire, you can have friends who are mentors…and you can mentor. Everyone has something to teach someone else.

When dealing with issues like gender equality and working toward a more equal world, it is easy to focus on the negative or all of the inequalities. Yet you bring a positive focus to these issues, for example by opting to tell a “story of abundance.” Do you think the way we frame important issues (in a positive or a negative way) shapes the answers or solutions we are able to find? In other words, do you find the way we ask questions in our work makes a difference?  

I absolutely believe with everything that if you frame it in the negative, it’s harder to get the outcome. As a business person, a filmmaker, a creative person, it’s easier to gain results if you use a positive framework. My husband and I say we are “Opticists,” so we’re optimistic but grounded in a healthy dose of scepticism. Actually, he would say we are “Skeptimistics” with the skepticism first then the optimism. It’s all about the way you ask the question. I’m Jewish, so all we do is ask questions. It’s like the whole tenet of our culture is to ask a lot of questions all the time. Then the way you frame the question is very important.

In terms of gender equality, just framing it in terms of abundance, I think, will lead to more abundance. If it’s always what we don’t have, it’s demoralizing. If it’s instead, “hey, look how far we’ve come,” then you feel the wind at your sails and the strength of hundreds of years of courageous women. Then you’re going to take it that final mile. It’s much more exciting and motivating.

You and your family have an interesting weekly tradition in which you observe “technology shabbat.” How do you practice this tradition, and what benefits do you gain from it?

It’s absolutely changed my life. We’ve been doing it for seven years now. It has grounded me and helped me focus on what’s important, like my family and being present. It’s made me feel more creative because I’ve set a boundary of working and not working. I feel it gives me insights that I don’t think people get if you’re constantly online and being interrupted and influenced by all the incoming emails and texts. We do it from Friday night to Saturday night. It’s my favorite day of the week. I mean what day do you want to feel long? It’s Saturday. It makes it feel like the longest day. Technology speeds time up, and this makes it feel like the day is very long, luxurious, and wonderful. I made a 5- minute film about it called “Technology Shabbats” that people can watch here.

What would your documentary playlist consist of?

This isn’t my definitive list, but some films that go along with “50/50,” plus new films I saw that I love and an old favorite: She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, Equal Means Equal, Capturing the Friedmans, Mr Gaga, Step, and Man with Movie Camera.

 


Interview and transcription by Nicole Smith

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Spot on Directors: Sophie Robinson

Sophie Robinson has been a fan of documentaries since she was a teenager and has made her own films for over 15 years. From historical and science-based to music docs, Sophie likes to explore the mysteries of the mind, as well as physical and psychological journeys, placing powerful characters at the heart of her films. So when the young, documentary producer Lotje Sodderland contacted Sophie to help chronicle her own experiences after having a massive brain hemorrhage, Sophie was ready and willing to help. The creative and inspiring film MY BEAUTIFUL BROKEN BRAIN was the result of this collaboration.

What is it that draws you to documentary film?

When I was 15 years old I watched a documentary called “14 Days in May” which had such a profound effect on me that after that I would seek out documentaries on TV rather than dramas or movies. I came to realize over the years that for me, truth was stronger and more fascinating than fiction, that every person has a story in them and in sharing those stories we learn so much more about ourselves and our environment.

What is your history with documentary film? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

After university, I had 2 things in mind—to either be a theater director or a documentary director. I chose to explore documentaries first because I had studied theater directing for my degree and wanted to find out about docs before making a decision. Six months in and my decision was made. My first job was at the BBC where I worked on all sorts of documentaries as a researcher, but when I started directing I tended to choose films that were about the human spirit, life and death stories, explorations of the brain—all of which I guess ultimately led to making MY BEAUTIFUL BROKEN BRAIN.

The human condition and people’s resilience fascinates me, and I am drawn to how we cope when faced with life changing decisions or when we are pushed to our limits. Although saying that, I have just made a music documentary with Mumford and Sons and am currently in production with another film about anarchy and rebellion in music with the band Chumbawamba—so there aren’t too many rules about my choices, just that the subject fascinates me!

Upon waking from her emergency surgery, Lotje began documenting her experiences and was already doing this before asking you to get involved.  How was it jumping into this in-progress project? What was it like working with Lotje as she simultaneously underwent recovery?

Actually, it felt like a privilege. As a documentary filmmaker you spend your life persuading people to share very private parts of their lives publicly when the idea may not have crossed their minds before they meet you. This time I was invited in. Lotje asked me to join her and collaborate with her and help her document what was happening. At the beginning, we had no idea where it would lead—whether it would be a film for television, an independent film, or even just a personal collection of video diaries for her to look back on later in her life. We very much made this film together and went on an adventure in the making of it, that continuously took us to more and more unexpected places. All the way through the process Lotje’s recovery came first, so there were times when I would take a step back and then come back in when she was ready.

Early on we decided to make the film independently so as to avoid putting any pressure on Lotje in terms of deadlines or process and to give us as much creative control as possible before collaborating with a broadcaster. In working like this, I think the film actually benefited, and we were able to create near enough the story Lotje wanted to tell.

My Beautiful Broken Brain uses experimental effects to convey the visual and auditory distortions that Lotje experiences when perceiving the world around her after her stroke. Is this the first time you used such effects in your films? What made you and Lotje feel they were important elements and decide to incorporate them into the film?

I have used CGI and some special effects in my films before, but nothing like the ones we created for this film. It was quite early on in Lotje’s recovery that she would describe this new world that she found herself in and despite having problems with her language, she was able to articulate what she was experiencing clearly and beautifully. And so we started talking about how we might be able to get that across in the film.

The other thing was that even though we knew this was a great story, it was yet another story about recovery to potential buyers or broadcasters, and so we wanted it to feel much more experiential and unlike any other story of recovery they might have seen. The fact that Lotje described her new existence as being in a David Lynch film was also something we wanted to convey, a world where reality just doesn’t feel quite right, where the mundane suddenly shifts in meaning and where the distinction between what’s real and what isn’t is very blurred.

A major theme in the film is how artistic expression can also be therapeutic in some way. Have you ever found this to be true in your own life? Has your artistic work and perhaps your work as a filmmaker ever proven therapeutic or helpful as a way of working through issues in your own life?

Oh my god, ALL my films are a form of therapy! When I look back at the films I have made or the ones I am currently making I think they all represent the questions I’m asking myself in my life at that time. It is no accident that at a point in my life where I was making big life changing decisions I made a film about a woman who has to start all over again halfway through her own life. When I was starting a family in my early 30s and it became much more complicated than I had expected, I was making a film about fetal medicine and then went on to make another one about premature babies. When I was in my 20s and exploring the world and my career, I made films about adventure. And now that I’m in my 40s (and probably having a midlife crisis) I’m making films about bands, anarchy, and rebellion! So yes. 100%. Films are a creative way of working through issues in my own life!

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film?

From the overwhelming amount of emails people have sent who have seen the film and have either experienced something similar themselves or are related to someone who has, it seems that the way Lotje has been able to articulate her experience has started a conversation around feeling invisible when you have a brain injury. Many people have expressed relief and gratitude that this film now acts as a voice for them, and they can use it to explain to others what they are going through, what they are feeling, and how they want to be treated. Lotje’s incredible positivity through it all has also acted as an inspiration to many many people who have felt alone and abandoned after their brain injury, and she has inspired them to speak up and stand up for themselves.

Often after watching documentaries, people feel inspired to apply the lessons learned to their own life. Is there something you would recommend to someone after watching?

To simply remember Lotje’s words: “Just breath. Don’t panic. Let go of fear.”

What would your documentary playlist consist of? 

14 Days in May, Mugabe and The White South African, Man on Wire, Grey Gardens, Capturing the Friedmans, and Manda Bala.

 


MY BEAUTIFUL BROKEN BRAIN is Influence Film Club’s featured film for April 2017. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by: Nicole Smith

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Join Us At Tempo Documentary Festival 2017

Please join Influence Film Club for extended discussions with the filmmakers following these three exciting documentaries at Tempo Documentary Festival:

THE LAND OF THE ENLIGHTENED: A gang of Afghan kids from the Kuchi tribe dig out old Soviet mines and sell the explosives to children working in a lapis lazuli mine. When not dreaming of the time when American troops finally withdraw from their land, another gang of children keeps tight control on the caravans smuggling the blue gemstones through the arid mountains of Pamir. In this seamless blend of fictional and documentary form, we experience a stunning cinematic journey into the beauty of war-tormented Afghanistan. Shot over seven years on evocative 16mm footage, first-time director Pieter-Jan De Pue paints a whimsical yet haunting look at the condition of Afghanistan left for the next generation. With director Pieter-Jan De Pue on Tuesday 7 March 17:30-19:30 at Victoria.

CHEER UP takes us into the teenage lives of a team of cheerleaders from the Arctic Circle in Finland, who always seem to place last.  They struggle to improve and try their best to look perfect doing it, but really, teenage life can be tough for these girls. For Patricia, Aino and Miia, finding out who they are,  where they belong and what family means is much more important than any trophy. With director Christy Garland on Thursday 9 March 17:30-19:30 at Victoria.

GAZA SURF CLUB: Caught between Israel and Egypt, the Gaza Strip has been called “the world’s largest open-air prison.” But Gaza is also bordered by the Mediterranean, and drawing a new generation to the country’s coastline to taste freedom in the rolling surf. This heartfelt documentary takes us into the world of Gaza’s surfing enthusiasts and reveals a formidable resilience pulsing within a beleaguered population. With directors Philip Gnadt & Mickey Yamine on Friday 10 March 17:30-19:30 at Victoria.

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Spot on Directors: Tora Mkandawire Mårtens

In celebration of International Women’s Day, our film of the month for March MARTHA & NIKI is an inspiration for women and girls, boys and men, and everyone around the world. This film begins by getting our bodies moving with awe-inspiring hip-hop dance and leaves our hearts singing the tune of a complex and beautiful friendship. Swedish director Tora Mkandawire Mårtens spent five years growing and learning alongside Martha and Niki, and the result is a film that pulls back the curtain on two female dance pioneers, revealing a story of strength, hardships, and staying true to yourself.

What is it that draws you to documentary film?

Before I started working as a filmmaker, I was a still photographer for many years. Stills and moving images are very interwoven in my work. Both have the ability to convey things that are hard to describe in words. Pictures speak in silence. What’s great about both stills and moving images is when they manage to create a feeling of their own in the visual language, when the viewer steps into a new world. My goal with the film about Martha and Niki is for the viewer to remember the imagery in the film. I want the feeling in the images to stick with the viewer after they leave the cinema. From square one you should be drawn into the world of Martha and Niki, a visual world dedicated solely to them. A visual language that will symbolize their lives and moods and to bring out their feelings and dreams.

What is your history with documentary film? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

Film editing is one of my favorite things in the process of making a film. Anything can happen in the documentary process and I’m often forced to analyze, question and reassess what is important to get across. One of the challenges is preserving my openness throughout the process; that takes great patience and time. I want to have time to try things out, assess difficult choices, edit scenes in different ways, search for the strongest images, create the right mood and tempo in the film overall, try out different kinds of music in different places, and rearrange scenes. Make the entire film play like a piece of music; that is my optimal process. I learned a lot about the documentary process when I made my first feature film Colombianos, particularly in the editing stage.

MARTHA & NIKI is much more than a dance documentary. It is a film about women boldly taking space in the typically male-dominated world of hip-hop dance, friendship, coming of age, ties to our roots, culture, love, and growing apart. What element of Martha & Niki’s story originally drew you to them, and were there any moments while filming that surprised you, inviting you to take a step back and reevaluate where the film was headed?

The first time I saw Martha and Niki dance was on Youtube, I was instantly amazed even felt seduced… no…almost obsessed! Both of them carried so much that needed to get out through dance. I felt so excited about their energy and decided to capture that on film. They’re very different as individuals, which makes their relationship the more interesting to explore. Their friendship really touches the viewer on so many emotional levels. I was instantly swept away by their friendship from scene one. They’re very honest and straightforward about everything and that kind of honesty was exactly what I wanted to portray —nothing was held back, everything is real and upfront—honesty is what moves people. Words and communicating are however an area they’re lacking in. They communicate best through dance and expose themselves entirely. Dancing is really what keeps them connected, it’s also the beauty of their connection. Martha calls it an ‘infatuation’—which comes across in the film and is quite striking to watch. Their love for dance is something they treat with pure honesty and that comes across in each and every move. They go deep and put their hearts into it – the crowd loves it. It’s important to also mention they were pioneers and represented something completely new to the game – beaming of charisma and a confidence that led them to their victory. They crushed all male competitors, which was a first, that was a big deal, it almost came off as a provocation because they were so used to winning. My aim with this film has been to get beneath the surface and present another side of the hip-hop dance world. Hip hop can express so many emotions, there are battles but there’s also a more profound art form that underpins it. Or, as Martha puts it, every time she dances she tells a story, the story of her life. We get to know Martha and Niki in the beginning of the film almost wordlessly via gestures, movements and body language. Only when we see their first defeat does the street dance fade to reveal problems that they experience away from the stage. People said: they’re world champions already, what more is there to say? There’s a tendency towards fixed ideas about how a story should be told, but I think you can do it in many ways. MARTHA & NIKI is also a film about the friendship between two young women from diverse backgrounds. When Martha was 13 she and her family left Uganda for Sweden, and she has never felt at home in the new country. Niki, on the other hand, was adopted as a baby from Ethiopia. And, as she puts it, she’s fed up with growing up with a different skin color and having to put up with all the tired prejudices that go with it. There’s clearly an unspoken sense of being outsiders, mostly for Martha, but for Niki too in a different way. Dance is the means to overcome these feelings. Both of them get such amazing self-confidence from dance, from the coordination of their bodies.

Martha and Niki’s friendship is captivating, and the two of them share a special connection. Martha is a quiet and private person, and Niki works to build trust and communication between them off the dance floor. You manage to capture some very intimate moments between them, yet it also seems like Martha’s walls are never fully torn down. What was your experience building a relationship and trust with the two of them as a director? 

We shot this film during a five-year period and I have followed Martha and Niki’s development as human beings and how their relationship changed through the years, so many things evolved during this process. From the start, with the script, I called this film a “love story” (between friends) and I think we captured all the phases that a love story contains. I also call this film a coming of age film, as you can see them grow up and change during the film. Martha and Niki have put a lot of faith in me to make this film, and I wanted to be completely open with them regarding the footage. I think that this increased their faith in me and made them dare to offer more of their inner-selves. By showing them my material, I also avoid having to worry about what they’re going to think of the film when it’s done. One necessary precondition for me as a filmmaker was that they were satisfied and will stand behind the film. Without their faith, there can be no film. The challenge has been to also portray difficulties and conflicts that Martha and Niki face. I always have a great responsibility as a filmmaker to handle the material I collect in a respectful way. I have to say, making documentaries is always a challenge. Getting emotionally involved is part of the role of a director because people open up and share their stories, which I cherish deeply. I’m held responsible for making everyone involved pleased. That includes processing all feelings during the making of the film and dealing with nerves. So, I’m extremely pleased with the fact that Martha and Niki’s participation in the film has played a therapeutic part in their lives, in terms of expressing and dealing with hardships. I appreciate that.

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film? 

You don’t have to be into dance or hip-hop to watch this film, it moves people regardless.

Many people can relate to the film because we all—or at least most of us—have a close friend with whom our relationship is somewhat complicated. I’ve also noted that people in all ages are touched by the film, from young children to old people. There’s no integral explicit message to it, it rather circles around several messages. But, as a whole, the core message is really about honesty, staying true to yourself, and not to pretend. Our goal was to create an authentic feel to the film, we want to take the viewers with us, to experience the full package by making them feel as if they’re actually there watching the battles live. See the film, if you want to get inspired and enjoy watching people dance—because dance expresses so much without using words. My vision has always been to create an inspiring film that makes you feel that everything is possible. A film that gives hope and makes you happy.

Often after watching documentaries, people feel inspired to apply the lessons learned to their own life. What is this one thing you would recommend to someone after watching MARTHA & NIKI?

We often talk about promoting role models so that young people have someone to look up to and be inspired by. Martha and Niki are definitely role models, but not because they’re world champions. What’s important in the film is not to highlight success and the importance of winning. It is Martha and Niki’s warmth, consideration, humor, thoughts, and how they act towards each other and other people that I think can inspire the audience. It’s their way of being human that makes them role models and inspiring.


MARTHA & NIKI is Influence Film Club’s featured film for March 2017. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by: Isis Marina Graham

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Spot on Directors: Frank Pavich

Alejandro Jodorowsky is a name that brings excitement to the ears of any hardcore film nerd. His psychomagical masterpieces are leave viewers awestruck, and our film of the month reveals to audiences everywhere that one of these masterpieces never saw the light of day – unless of course you consider the tremendous impact its conception has had on the sci-fi genre ever since. Ever seen Alien? How about Star Wars? This documentary will convince you we ought to be tipping our hat, in part, to Jodorowsky for their aesthetics. JODOROWSKY’S DUNE shines a light on the inspiring brilliance, and madness, of one of cinema’s greatest minds and we had the pleasure of interviewing director Frank Pavich discussing his portrait of the greatest movie never made.

What is it that draws you to documentary film? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

For me, a documentary film seems a more feasible way to go. I can have an idea or find a story that is compelling, and very quickly, with a small crew, can start working on it almost immediately. The nature of documentary film allows for a more hunt-and-peck method of work as opposed to necessitating a screenplay to be written and roles to be cast, for example. We can explore as we shoot and edit, finding the story as we progress along.

For a pre-scripted film, everything, including the money, needs to be lined up before the first frame is shot. So making a documentary feels like a more realistic way for me to be able to work.

How did you find out about the story of “Dune”? And what ultimately led you to Alejandro Jodorowsky? Is the story of how you met anything as random and fantastical as the many introductions Jodorowsky describes in the film?

It’s a story that has obviously been around for a while, mentioned in books here or there, but it was not terribly well-known. There was a documentary made about Alejandro many years ago called CONSTELLATION JODOROWSKY and that’s where I first saw a glimpse of his famous DUNE book. The DUNE story was only touched on for a few minutes, but it was fascinating.

I’m not sure if there was anything exactly magical about that first meeting – aside from the fact that I was in ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY’S HOUSE! The whole thing was all very Jodorowskian of course. I think he had fun torturing me by placing that huge book on the table between us, but never inviting me to open it. So mean!  

As you can tell from what he says in the film, he makes his choices based on his instincts. We can see it in how he chose his Spiritual Warriors.  And I think it was the same way between us. To this day he has never asked me what other films I’ve made and he has never asked to see any work of mine. He made his decision purely on that meeting.

Then again, he also now says that he agreed to sit for my interviews because he simply never thought that I would complete the film! So he thought there was no harm in laying himself out there for something that would never see the light of day anyway!

Jodorowsky is an incredible storyteller, and at every turn the story of the pre-production of “Dune” becomes increasingly extraordinary. How much of the story do you think has become mythologized, if any at all?

That’s a good question! It’s funny, but every time I was about to hit my limit of belief, there would be someone else to corroborate his tales. For example, the story he told about meeting Pink Floyd, where he yelled at them for eating their lunch as opposed to speaking with him, was almost too hilarious to have actually happened. But then we spoke with his co-producer, Jean-Paul Gibon, who was there at the meeting, and he could verify that it was in fact all true!  

The same goes for the Dali stories. Michel Seydoux verified all of that craziness. And in fact, it’s an even wilder and longer tale.  Michel told us about how they had to bring Dali gifts with representations of hippopotamuses for some unknown reason. They also once got stuck in a rowboat, being towed around a lake by Dali’s larger boat, with black smoke spewing into their faces and choking them for the whole ride. Seydoux said that he almost died that day while Dali and his wife sat comfortably in their lounge chairs aboard the larger boat.

So the reality is that there are even weirder tales that we just couldn’t fit in our film.

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people having around the film?

Well, there’s obviously the surface-level story of the never-made film. So naturally, people quite often express their disappointment that his DUNE was thwarted. But what’s really interesting to me is that so many people find the documentary to be inspirational.  

I see it all the time on Twitter or on blog postings or even articles here and there. A big conversation is about how after watching the film, people find themselves inspired to go further. And really, what’s better than an outcome like that?

Often after watching documentaries, people want to take action. JODOROWSKY’S DUNE is not a social impact film, but as you say many people walk away from the film inspired. How would you recommend audience members harness the inspiration they feel after watching the film?

That really comes down to the person. Alejandro is an artist, so I assume that many artists may be inspired by his words. But I hope that his thoughts and ideas go further than that. Artist or not, I believe that everyone can take something from his endless supply of positivity. Hopefully the common thread is that viewers walk away feeling that they can do anything, and then they try. That’s the moral to the story, right? It all comes down to Jodo’s final words about DUNE, where he says, “We have to try.”

What would your documentary playlist consist of? 

Hmmm, interesting!  Well, I always thought that JODOROWSKY’S DUNE would be a great film to screen on the first day of film school.  

But everything needs a counterbalance, so taking that into account, I would say that OVERNIGHT (2003) is the great cautionary filmic tale of our time.  It’s a story about the ambition but with none of the self-awareness, none of the artistry and none of the humility (or humanity) that Alejandro possesses.  It’s truly a remarkable film.

To stick with some of those same themes, I might suggest two of the obvious ones, HEARTS OF DARKNESS (1991) and BURDEN OF DREAMS (1982).  These are two wonderful documentaries about two fantastic films that were completed against unimaginable odds.  

To take a left turn, I might suggest THE TARGET SHOOTS FIRST (2000).  It’s a really great and not terribly well-known film made by a guy who used to work at Columbia House Records in the mid-90s.  He would go onto work every day with a video camera and he would just film his day and his coworkers.  It’s amazing look at a world that no longer exists.

And maybe I would take a further left turn with HATED: GG ALLIN AND THE MURDER JUNKIES (1994).  There is no one like Alejandro Jodorowsky and there was certainly no one like GG, although I do not think that the two of them would get along!  This is the first film by Todd Phillips who went on to make R-rated comedies like OLD SCHOOL and THE HANGOVER, which is sort of wild.  If you can make it past the opening image, you’ll in for a ride.  

Lastly, I would have to list GIMME SHELTER (1970), perhaps my favorite documentary film of all time.  There is a slight connection to that film as when I started working on DUNE, I was living in NY, in an apartment previously occupied by the great Charlotte Zwerin, a frequent collaborator with the Maysles and the editor and co-director of GIMME SHELTER.  Perhaps her spirit embedded itself into my work?

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Jodorowsky’s Dune s Influence Film Club’s featured film for December 2016. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletters and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by Isis Graham

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Spot on Directors: Kirby Dick

What can we say? Kirby Dick is a director truly after our heart. Not only does he make incredibly powerful films about challenging topics that matter, he is a champion of discussion as a tool for change-making. It was for this reason that we are proud to present his films THE INVISIBLE WAR – in collaboration with MUBI – and THE HUNTING GROUND as our films of the month for November.

What is it that draws you to documentary film?

I find the unpredictability of the process very stimulating.  

What is your history with documentary? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?  

My films have always focused on people who are outsiders, who critique established norms. I’ve made films about survivors of priest abuse trying to change the culture of complicity and cover-up in the catholic church; U.S. military veterans challenging the Pentagon over sexual assault; students launching legal suits against their institutions in order to make them safer for future generations; independent filmmakers speaking out against a biased U.S. movie rating system dominating the world film market; and of course, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who challenged established thinking and ideologies with his deconstructive critique.

We’ve talked before about your process of making films, screening early versions to small groups and listening to the conversations they generate as a way of gauging what the film communicates and how to develop it further. Can you discuss the importance of having these conversations? And your thoughts on the importance of discussion of documentaries in general?

As a documentary filmmaker, you become extremely familiar with the footage you’ve shot. This is good in that it helps you think through and understand what you have, but it becomes a challenge because you come to see the footage in a much different way than an audience who is seeing the film for the first time.  Not only are you not seeing the material for the first time, but your understanding of the material is influenced by your experience of shooting the footage, by all the footage that you shot but is not in the cut, and by your often quite close relationship with the subjects.  

During the editing process, an important way to get a sense of how audiences are seeing the material is to have periodic screenings of the cuts, which is something more and more documentary filmmakers are doing.  I have a very specific protocol that I follow which has been invaluable for me.  I generally do at least 10 screenings over the course of the editing process.  I like the audience for a screening to be somewhere between 8 and 20 people, so there is a feeling of intimacy. Then I invite friends or friends of friends, but I don’t limit it to filmmakers, and, most importantly, I don’t invite people who’ve already seen a cut of the film.  

Once the film is screened, I ask for comments.  After someone has spoken, rather than responding myself, I ask for others to respond.  I encourage the audience to engage in deep discussions on the content, political implications, aesthetics, and technical filmmaking aspects.  Often these discussions are so profound and stimulating that they help me see the material and my films in ways that I hadn’t considered, and the films become better because of that.

Can you tell us a bit about the impact campaign around THE HUNTING GROUND and THE INVISIBLE WAR. Has there been any specific moment, achievement, or change that you are the most proud of?

There have been many exceptional and gratifying moments.  A few that come to mind are for The Invisible War are: Former US Secretary of Defense Leon Pancetta announcing significant policy changes just two days after watching The Invisible War to announce significant military policy changes; the military screening the film to millions of its troops (it’s now a training tool on most bases); having retired soldiers come up to me and thank me for the film and tell me how it has helped change culture in the military;  a packed Congressional hearing room with generals, admirals, and many of the US’s most powerful senators all referencing and praising the film as they discussed reforms.  

For The Hunting Ground, some of these moments are: Governor Brown of California signing legislation to extend the statute of limitation for rape, something which reformers had been trying to accomplish for decades and something our film helped make possible; the film screening on thousands of colleges and universities and sparking change at each of those campuses; Vice President Joe Biden introducing our film and Lady Gaga at the Oscars and her receiving a standing ovation following her powerful performance of the film’s song alongside 50 survivors onstage, many of whom had appeared in our film. We received emails from around the globe for weeks following the Oscars from survivors and advocates saying it was a watershed historic moment in the victim’s rights movement.  

No one is “pro-rape”, yet these films highlight major shortcomings in two major pillars in American culture – the military and higher education. Have you experienced any resistance to the films that you didn’t expect? How have you met that resistance.

Actually, rapists are “pro-rape,” and I think individually these (nearly all) men create an environment where they can continue to rape by demeaning women, questioning whether survivors are telling the truth, and disparaging systematic critiques of the institutions they are a part of.  No surprise there.  But we were initially surprised by attempts to discredit the film that came from some in the more “liberal” institutions, like the press and the law, which was an indication how pervasive the denial of rape is in our culture.  However, since The Invisible War premiered in 2012 the films’ and our efforts to promote their message-combined with ongoing student activism, powerful voices in the press, and the Obama administration’s strong public position on campus sexual assault- has caused a historic change in how our culture views rape.  But there continues to be strong countervailing forces (as embodied by one of the candidates in the US election) and this battle is far from won.

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around these two films? Have they stirred up some strong opinions?

For the first time in our country’s history we are acknowledging how widespread sexual assault is, and we are beginning to place the blame for these violent crimes on the perpetrators instead of the victims. The military, to its credit, did not attack The Invisible War, but rather chose to heed it’s critique and use the film as a training tool.  There has been some backlash from a few of the institutions that were criticized in The Hunting Ground. This isn’t surprising, they are reacting defensively by attacking the messenger and denying there is a problem rather than addressing the problem. This response is proof that we’ve touched a nerve, that we’ve uncovered something these institutions don’t want exposed.  Most institutions are embracing the film – the film has screened on more than 1,000 campuses to date.

Often after watching documentaries, people wonder what the one most important thing they can do is. What is this one thing you would recommend to someone after watching THE INVISIBLE WAR or THE HUNTING GROUND?

Encourage others to watch the films as they are game changers and change hearts and minds. Parents and students should all watch The Hunting Ground, as it provides information they are not getting from anywhere else – and all military personnel should watch Invisible War. For additional actions, see our films’ websites:

http://www.thehuntinggroundfilm.com/ and http://invisiblewarmovie.com/

What would your documentary playlist consist of? 

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, Sisters in Law, The InterruptersF is for Fake, Roger & Me, and Land without Bread

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Interview by Isis Graham

THE INVISIBLE WAR – co-presented by MUBI– and THE HUNTING GROUND are Influence Film Club’s featured films for November 2016. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletters and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

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Our November Film of the Month is co-presented by MUBI. As a gift to our North American North American Audiences, we are providing a free 60 day trial and access to our film of the month, The Invisible War, for the month of November.

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